Coal Mountain is a wildly beautiful piece of Appalachia.
Crooked roads and cascading creeks. Tight mountain ridges and narrow hollows.
Religion runs deep here, and so does a sense of kin: Morgans, Hatfields, Baileys, Lesters, Wests, Clines, Tolers, and Cooks.
About one in every four households receives food stamps, and nearly one of every five persons is officially out of work—one of the highest unemployment rates in the Mountain State.
Some have fled the community to better themselves elsewhere. Others have not.
It is powerfully difficult for an outsider to crack the close-knit network of family and friends. It is just as hard for those who have grown up here to shake off the family ties.
In a community of fewer than 700 people, a single, unemployed welfare mother and church volunteer, has had a hard life.
Donna Elaine Hatfield knows first-hand the hard-scrabble way of life for what it is.
But, she said, there is an odd security in her life that she does not expect outsiders to understand. She knows, for example, that if her children are not home, they are probably two doors up, at their grandparents.
“As long as you can get by, and you are not starving, and you have a roof over your head and clothes to wear, you do not complain,” she said. “I think of myself as being lucky. I have love, and I am grateful.”
Down here, rough, and tough times have for so long been such a common course of living that some say that it is a preferable to the unknown world that one might encounter if she left the mountains.
“We would surely miss the little things,” explained Roger Lester, 67, a 40-year resident of the community. “These are the kind of people I want to get to know. They are my kind of people.”
Lester has no desire to leave his immaculate ranch-style, brick home. He raised his family here. He says he would not be happy anywhere else.
“Peace of mind means a lot,” he said. “If I thought the answers were up in the cities somewhere, I would be the first to high tail it out. I was born and raised not far from here and I am not leaving.”
The same is true for many of the region who have spent their lives working on their knees in underground coal mines, or at mine-related jobs.
For them, coal mining is not just a job; rather, it is an identity.
Coal is what binds people together, even if they have not worked at the job in years. People in Coal Mountain still speak of black lung disease benefits, coal camps, and coal mining men.
Coal miners and retired or disabled miners make up about a third of the local work force. Others are employed with local schools or work at state road jobs. Still others commute to nearby Gilbert or Pineville, where small-town retail stores and beauty salons and one-stop shops offer marginal opportunities for those with basic skills.
But to the people who live here, the smell of gravy and biscuits in the area’s few roadside restaurants is a welcoming fragrance when patrons gather to breakfast and read the morning newspaper.
Two Justice eateries, located a few miles farther down the Guyandotte, offer three meals a day. Sundays are when families gather to dine with friends, neighbors, relatives, fellow churchgoers, and local senior citizens.
Within the mountain hollows of the Guyandotte, news and information travels quickly. Everybody knows practically everyone else. So-and-so is sewing for so-and-so. Carol, Freda, or Judy has just had a baby—a girl named Amy or Amber or Mary Lou.
Everywhere, there is evidence of hard times, but the distinction between the haves and the have-nots seems more blurred than in some areas, for nearly everybody either grew up poor or has a relative living below the poverty line.
This is a world where people do not quibble over the merits of Tommy versus Polo; it is enough to own gym shoes and jeans, to own a TV with more than a few channels, a vehicle with a muffler and tailpipe still attached to the frame.
It is a place where children can qualify for free lunch and even special benefits from the Department of Human Services.
And yet, what most people really want are jobs. Real jobs that offer a decent living wage and benefits such as hospital and dental care. They want to obtain self-respect and a house with a yard, a new pickup truck with air-conditioning and reclining seats.
They want a piece of the action, a slice of the American Dream.
If they are tired of eating leftover beans and bacon, it is because they have had it already.
But nobody in this hill community wants to use the word “depressed,” even though it is what it is—depressed.
And residents have figured it out: The only way that you can get a job is if you know somebody.
Residents who live nearby are just as quick to point out a major problem among the youth growing up along the back roads of the region. “There seems to be more alcohol and drugs around these days,” explained David Godfrey, a Hanover businessman who has traveled the road to Coal Mountain since he was a child.
“Lots of youngsters use drugs, and they are the prey of drug dealers,” Godfrey said. “If one drug dealer dies off, another is ready to take his place. You cannot get rid of it.”
Because it is customary in Appalachia for these problems to be handled within the family, and because many cannot afford medical help, supporting statistics are hard to come by.
Godfrey noted there’s even hostility toward businesspeople. His family store at the crossroads of U.S. Route 52 and WV 9, a few miles from Coal Mountain, has been robbed and vandalized countless times in past decades.
“Sometimes thieves even cut a hole in the wall and climb in,” Godfrey explained. “We’ve had break-ins two or three times a month. It is not easy to stay in business. We try to help people, but others take advantage…”
There is mention of a recent shooting, but crime, by urban standards, is practically nonexistent.
All that most people want is to be left alone and be able to make a decent living.
“Most people wouldn’t want to settle down and live here,” Godfrey said. “But it’s home to most of us and it’s all we’ve ever known. Once you raise a family, there is no reason to leave. It’s home.”
Top o’ the morning!